Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Rugby teams meet to fight ALS

Rugby star Doddie Weir was diagnosed with ALS. Steve Bardens/Getty Images for RPA

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When the men’s national rugby teams from the USA and Scotland take the pitch at BBVA Compass Stadium June 16, they’ll be battling for more than just an international victory.

They will be raising awareness and funds for what Americans call amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease and what the UK calls Motor Neurone Disease.

More than 5,000 people each year are diagnosed with the incurable, debilitating neurological disease that has no cure. Gehrig was the first athlete in the U.S. to be diagnosed and bring awareness to the illness, which presents and progresses differently in every patient.

A little over a year ago, the disease struck one of Scotland’s iconic players – Doddie Weir – and he has launched his own foundation to help raise funds. Weir, who retired from the game in 2004, has been able to walk on his own and brought some 67,000 spectators to their feet at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Staduim last fall when he carried the game ball onto the pitch for a union match between Scotland and New Zealand.

Although he won’t be able to travel to Houston for the game, Weir’s My Name5 Doddie Founation – the 5 incorporates his jersey number in the name – and Houston Methodist Institute’s Neurological ALS Clinic will benefit from the event.

The acclaimed Methodist Clinic’s multi-disciplinary approach has become the gold standard for ALS care.  Dr. Stanley H. Appel , the clinic director, was the first to implement the approach where neurologists, pulmonologists, respiratory therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, social workers and nurses work as a team with patients.

“Dr. Appel saw that this was what was needed to manage this illness,’’ said Methodist ALS Clinic Coordinator Karen Toennis. “Like I tell folks, there is no cure, but we can treat this and we can manage it.’’

O.J. Brigance, a former Rice star linebacker who was on the Baltimore Ravens’ 2001 Super Bowl Championship team, has lived with the disease for 11 years now. Although he is in a wheelchair and relies on a special computer he communicates with by controlling keys with his eyes, Brigance is one of the bright lights in the fight. Not only is he still working for the Ravens as Senior Advisor to Player Engagement, his Brigance Brigade Foundation raises funds and awareness. Brigance was a patient at Methodist for a bit, but is now treated close to home at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

He wrote a book with that eye-assisted computer - "Strength of a Champion" – about his journey with ALS and was in Houston two weeks ago to raise awareness at Rice.

Brilliant theoretical scientist and acclaimed Cambridge professor Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with the disease in 1963 and given two years to live. Hawking, who, like Brigance was in a wheelchair and communicated with eye-assisted computer, lived with the disease for 55 years before passing away in March at the age of 76.

“(ALS) patients don’t lose that eye function,’’ said Methodist ALS Clinic coordinator Karen Toennis. ‘’So this is where those computers are such a God send.’’

Other athletes living with the disease include former San Francisco 49er receiver Dwight Clark and former New Orleans Saint safety Steve Gleason.

“They don’t know what causes ALS,’’ Toennis said. “It still has our greatest scientists scratching their heads.’’

The complex disease can take up to a year to diagnose, but events like the June 16 match and foundations are raising money for research – and, they hope, an eventual cure.

There are a few promising projects moving forward including Appel’s study on the effect of immune response.

“He’s trying to work with body’s own immune system to slow the progression,’’ Toennis said.

To donate to ALS research through the rugby match, you can go to  https://sportsauthorityfoundation.org/donate.


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Houston couldn't keep up

Astros fall to Blue Jays as Toronto gets homer-happy

Houston's bats couldn't keep up with Toronto's Saturday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With an offensive clinic in the opener on Friday night, which helped them handily defeat the Blue Jays, the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park Saturday with a chance to secure another series. Toronto had other plans, though, reversing roles with Houston by getting big home runs to even the series.

Final Score: Blue Jays 8, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 17-16, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Steven Matz (5-2)

Losing Pitcher: Cristian Javier (3-1)

Toronto flips the script and turns on their offense against Javier

Toronto flipped the script from the night before early in this middle game of the series, dealing damage to Cristian Javier, who so far in 2021 had been able to limit his amount of earned runs. After retiring the first four batters he faced, a one-out walk in the top of the second set up the Blue Jays' first hit of the night, a two-run home run by Cavan Biggio, giving them a 2-0 lead over Houston.

After a leadoff home run made it a 3-0 score, Javier would deal with the fallout of more walks in the top of the third, issuing two to set up a two-out two-RBI double to give the Jays a commanding 5-0 advantage. Javier would battle back and complete five full innings, getting one out into the sixth before a walk would prompt Dusty Baker to make the call to the bullpen. His final line: 5.1 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 8 K, 2 HR, 91 P.

Alvarez keeps mashing as Houston tries to claw back into it

Javier would exit with at least some runs on the board in support of him, with Yordan Alvarez hitting a two-run opposite-field homer in the bottom of the fourth to cut the lead to three runs. Alvarez accounted for another run in the next inning, coming through with an RBI-single to make it 5-3, which is where the game stood as Andre Scrubb would take over in the top of the sixth.

Scrubb finished that inning for Javier and returned for a 1-2-3 seventh to keep it a two-run game. Bryan Abreu was the next reliever, and he, too, was able to retire the Blue Jays in order in the top of the eighth. The Astros continued to chip away at Toronto's lead, getting another run in the bottom of the inning on an RBI by Yuli Gurriel to make it 5-4 heading to the ninth.

Toronto evens the series

Brooks Raley entered to try and keep it a one-run game with a clean inning, but instead, two runners would reach on a walk and error before Joe Smith would enter to try and strand them. Instead, a two-out home run put the game back out of reach at 8-4, with Houston coming up empty in the bottom of the inning, setting up a rubber match in the finale.

Up Next: This series's third and final game will be an afternoon start of 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Zack Greinke (2-1, 3.76 ERA) will try to add more wins to his record for Houston, while Nate Pearson will be making his 2021 debut for Toronto.

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